Elton John’s presentation started getting more showbiz-zy on 1973′s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road with results that emphasized his and collaborator Bernie Taupin’s simultaneous infatuation with popular culture and blindness to its limitations. Recorded and released later that same year, this filler-free double-album plays like one long, knowing, love letter to bygone Hollywood that’s as flashy as it is passionate: Even the songs that aren’t expressly about Marilyn Monroe and Roy Rogers feel as though they’re presented in Technicolor and Cinemascope. As such, it’s his most fully-realized record: This is Elton John at his Elton John-ny-est, a quintessential ’70s tour de force that hasn’t lost its luster.
As announced by the virtuosic 11-minute opener “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding,” the singer and his touring ensemble now roar like a genuine rock band. Elton goes glam and it suits him: Most Americans didn’t know Slade, England’s biggest band of 1973, but he makes their sound his own on “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” as nimbly as he draws from Alice Cooper (“All the Young Girls Love Alice”), the Stones (“Dirty Little Girl”), and other platform-booted peers, spectacularly summarized by “Bennie and the Jets,” a pop chart-topper and an unexpected hit on R&B radio.
Elton’s keyboards reach a new level of sophistication: Listen how he spins piano, electric piano and Mellotron into one swirling tornado of sound on “Grey Seal,” a re-recorded early B-side transformed into a key cut. The rollercoaster momentum of this record is such that even relatively minor tracks like “This Song Has No Title” set up the album’s multiple climaxes, and the breadth of reggae, music hall, country and other genres mutually flatter each other. Rock about rock is sometimes diverse, heartfelt or masterful, but rarely is it all that at once. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road is pop culture reflecting on itself like a giant disco ball in a hall of mirrors.